Toxic femininity: the many diverse interpretations of the concept 

Different perspectives of the concept shed light on different facets of societal gender dynamics. While feminist perspectives emphasise the impact of gender expectations on women, alternative understandings claim it to be a tool for women to dominate others while appearing weak and powerless

Published - August 23, 2023 08:30 am IST

For representative purposes.

For representative purposes. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

While it is not known when the term toxic femininity was first used, its origins are interlinked to the concept of toxic masculinity, a term coined by Shepherd Bliss during the mythopoetic men’s movement in the 1980s.

The concept of toxic femininity gained popularity in the 2010s with feminist writers and scholars explaining how it confines women to traditional and stereotypical expectations of women’s behaviour. Meanwhile, anti-feminist and conservative interpretations of the term are once again back in the spotlight, with the recent worldwide box-office success of Barbie.

Toxic masculinity

Before delving into the conceptualisation of toxic femininity, it is crucial to grasp the concept of toxic masculinity. American psychology professor and writer Shepherd Bliss introduced the term to describe authoritarian masculinity and the emotionally distant father-son relationships that often lead to the sons growing up as similar emotionally distant, violent, and misogynistic men who assert their power through dominance, particularly over women. This understanding suggests that fostering a strong emotional bond between fathers or father figures and their sons can help prevent the development of toxic masculine traits. According to sociologist Michael Flood, the term entailed the worst aspects of stereotypically masculine attributes,” including “violence, dominance, emotional illiteracy, sexual entitlement, and hostility to femininity.”

Feminists adopted this term to characterise homophobic and misogynistic speech and violence perpetuated by men, initially focusing on marginalised men from low-income backgrounds. However, it gained prominence in describing the sexist and toxic behaviour of powerful elite men, particularly since the #MeToo movement in 2016.

Defining toxic femininity

As opposed to toxic masculinity, whose definition has remained rather consistent, there have many interpretations of the concept of toxic femininity. From a feminist perspective, toxic femininity arises from societal gender expectations imposed on women. Women who conform to the stereotype of being quiet, submissive, and accepting of male domination embody toxic femininity, which perpetuates the silent acceptance of men’s aggression as a means of survival.

This phenomenon can be seen as internalised misogyny, compelling women to adhere to societal norms that keep them subservient. Similar to how fathers may pass down toxic traits to their sons, mothers can inadvertently perpetuate stereotypical gender roles in the next generation of women. Women are taught to remain passive, to never assert themselves in public spaces, tolerate sexist remarks and jokes, and even endure domestic violence. Scholars argue that toxic femininity enables toxic masculinity by reinforcing the power dynamic, as women’s submission allows men to treat them as possessions.

Alternative perspectives view toxic femininity as a tool wielded by women to gain power within a patriarchal structure. In this interpretation, women engage in manipulation, jealousy or use their position as victims to dominate others while appearing weak and powerless. This perspective positions toxic femininity as a counterpart to the negative traits associated with toxic masculinity. Further, conservatives employ this interpretation to undermine femininity and use it to shift blame onto women for the toxic behaviour exhibited by men, contending that men’s actions are merely responses to the toxic traits of women. For example, the prevalence of articles on “handling a crazy woman” illustrate how this concept has been manipulated within a patriarchal structure to blame the victim.

The conservative understanding of toxic femininity extends further, often equating it with toxic feminism and using the terms interchangeably. Within Men’s Rights Activist discourse, toxic femininity is viewed as a form of man-hating that victimises men. This perspective contends that toxic masculinity is a tool used by toxic women to accuse men. Denying that patriarchy systematically disadvantages women and arguing that toxic femininity poses a greater threat to men than toxic masculinity does to women, these proponents claim that radical femininity disrupts traditional family structures and societal norms. Recent controversies surrounding the movie Barbie, which challenges and critiques patriarchy in a unique manner, highlight how some view it as promoting toxic femininity.

Creating a gender binary

The various interpretations of toxic femininity inadvertently reinforce the gender binary. When discussing the toxic aspects of femininity, one inevitably creates an idealised notion of femininity. Defining healthier versions of femininity and masculinity continues to divide gender into two distinct categories, overlooking the fluid nature of gender identity, which does not rigidly separate masculinity from femininity.

While conservative versions of the concept attempt to glorify the stereotypical roles assigned to women, other perspectives reinforce the gender binary, barely leaving any space for people from the LGBTQ+ community who cannot be confined to it.

Furthermore, when examining the connection between dominant forms of masculinity and subservient forms of femininity along a single gender axis, intersectionality with other identities is often overlooked. Considering the toxic nature of femininity through the lens of intersecting identities such as race, class, caste, and others adds complexity to the concept, especially since the attributes and characteristics attached to men and women can differ according to different conditioning, circumstances and societal norms.

Toxic femininity as a concept with diverse interpretations sheds light on different facets of societal gender dynamics. While feminist perspectives emphasise the impact of gender expectations on women and the perpetuation of subservience, alternative understandings claim it to be a tool of power for women within patriarchal structures. However, it is essential to recognise that these interpretations may inadvertently uphold the gender binary and oversimplify the complex interplay of gender with other aspects of identity.

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